Early-season NBA takeaways

Donnovan Mitchell, Gorgui Dieng, Andrew Wiggins

1. The Rookie of the Year race is going to be legit

If you had to bet on one rookie to walk away with the award over the rest of the season, who do you choose? Even with number one overall pick Markelle Fultz already succumbing to the injury plague in Philadelphia, there are a plethora of worthy candidates. Ben Simmons, eligible after missing all of the 2016-17 season with injury, is averaging 16-10-7 over his first five games. De’Aaron Fox has shown flashes of the extraordinary sort for the Kings. Lauri Markkanen is making the Bulls seem less stupid for trading away Jimmy Butler. Lonzo Ball came one assist short of a triple-double in only his second game, yet still may be only the second best Laker rookie to Kyle Kuzma. Dennis Smith Jr., Bogdan Bogdanovic, John Collins, and Josh Jackson have all shown promise. Jayson Tatum has already planted himself as a solid contributor in Boston after Gordon Hayward went down with injury. Donovan Mitchell has yet to show the game-wrecking ability he displayed during Summer League play, but the athletic freak will be given plenty of opportunities during the season to piece it together. Plus a whole slew of other rookies too numerous to fully list here. There’s an argument to be made for each of the aforementioned to be in the conversation for the award at the remainder of the season. The decision could come down to which rookie’s team succeeds the most beyond expectations. For the record, my money would be on Simmons, but I’d be keeping a watchful eye on Tatum, Fox, and Mitchell.

2. Kyrie Irving in Boston looks to be just fine

Remember when we were all fretting over whether Irving would work in Boston? For his entire career, Irving has been the ball-dominant, isolation-relying player that seemingly might have bogged down Brad Steven’s pass-happy offense in Boston. The concerns over his style meshing with the offensive culture already established by the Celtics were credible, but look at these two plays from Irving against the Bucks on Thursday night.

 

For all the talk about the Celtics’ pass-happy offense, much of Boston’s success last season still came down to Isaiah Thomas infiltrating the defense and then kicking out to open shooters who could either let it fly or attack a closeout. Irving’s ability to collapse a defense is elite, and his below-the-rim finishing combined with his passing will make Boston an offensive force even without Hayward. The Irving-Celtics marriage will be just fine.

3. Golden State has A LOT of room to still get better

AP Photo/Ben Margot

Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry, right, shoots against Toronto Raptors’ Jakob Poeltl, left, as Warriors’ Draymond Green, second from right, blocks Raptors’ Delon Wright (55) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. Warriors won, 117-112. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

No one expected the reigning champs to only be 3-2 with losses to Houston and Memphis five games into the season. The Warriors have shown flashes of the dominance we’re expecting out of a team with four top-20 players on its roster, but haven’t consistently strung together such performances. The frightening prospect is that the Warriors could become vastly better than they have been in their first five outings. While Golden State has the star power to simply out-talent anyone in the league, their dominance relies on hustle. Last season, the Warriors ranked in the top three in per game averages for screen assists (12.8, 2nd), deflections (18.7, 1st), and loose balls recovered (7.7, 2nd). This season, the Warriors’ numbers in each of those categories have dropped significantly. Screen assists are down to only 7.8 per game, 13th best in the league. Deflections have dropped to 13.6 per game and loose balls recovered have dropped to 6.2 per game, both of which also rank 13th in the NBA. This isn’t a fatal flaw for the Warriors, but it is one to keep monitoring as the season progresses. Until Golden State’s hustle returns in full force, their dominance of any and all opponents will remain at bay.

4. Hot Take of the Week: The Brooklyn Nets have a real shot at the playoffs

Brooklyn finished as the worst team last season by four games. They finished with the second-worst plus/minus differential, the third-worst offensive rating, and the eighth-worst defensive rating. They will make the playoffs this season. Reason number one being that the Eastern Conference really is that bad. If the Nets don’t make the playoffs, that means you’re slotting at least one of the Knicks, Hawks, Bulls, Pacers, Magic, Hornets, or Pistons into the playoffs. Are the Nets completely excluded from that tier? Maybe, but so far this season, they’ve shown enough to be considered as a contender for the final playoff spots in the East, fielding the sixth-best offensive rating in the process. A home win over Cleveland is a promising showcase of what the Nets are building. Devoid of much in terms of draft assets, GM Sean Marks has done a tremendous job building a pool of young, talented players like Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Marks should be considered as a GM of the Year candidate. Brooklyn sneaking into the playoffs would certainly bolster his case.

5. The secret to Portland’s dangerous offense

AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer

Portland Trail Blazers, from left, guard Evan Turner, guard Damian Lillard, center Jusuf Nurkic and guard CJ McCollum high five at the end of an NBA basketball game in Portland, Ore., Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017. The Trail Blazers won 103-93. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)

The Trail Blazers are 3-2 with a three-point loss to Milwaukee on the road and a loss to the Clippers on a Blake Griffin buzzer-beating 3. Both Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum rank in the top 25 for points per game in the NBA. Evan Turner has a 3-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. The team is second in both 3-point percentage and plus/minus differential. The reason behind Portland’s hot start? Rebounds, rebounds, rebounds. The Blazers lead the league in total rebound percentage, offensive rebound percentage, and are fourth in defensive rebound percentage. The Blazers collect over 30 percent of their offensive misses. Any time you’re giving Lillard and McCollum a second attempt to score, the defense is going to have a bad time. Portland has done that nearly 15 times per game this season. Ed Davis alone is averaging nearly five offensive rebounds. Al-Farouq Aminu, Jusuf Nurkic, and rookie Caleb Swanigan all bring a nastiness to the boards, averaging a combined 5.5 more offensive rebounds per game. Should the Blazers’ rebound prowess continue, Portland will be looking at another playoff berth in the loaded Western Conference.

6. Russell Westbrook is the NBA’s best facilitator

Forget all the debate about Westbrook’s triple-double season and whether or not it was “beneficial” to his team. Forget that he’s only 0.5 rebounds short of averaging a triple-double for this season. Consider, however, that only two players are currently averaging double-digit assists in this young season: Westbrook and Chris Paul. Paul has played only one game this season, during which he totaled 10 assists in just over 33 minutes of play. Westbrook is averaging an absurd 12.8 assists in just over 35 minutes per game. Even more ludicrous is that Westbrook is averaging 25.8 potential assists per game. That leads the NBA by a wide margin (LeBron James is second with 20 per game). And this is all with Paul George still struggling to find rhythm in the Thunder offense. Westbrook’s triple-double season was awe-inspiring, but his encore is shaping up to eclipse even that.


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